26 April, 2012

Becoming An ACMG Guide

There's always a lot of smoke and cloud around the rumours, legends, and stories from candidates going through the ACMG programs on their way to become Ski, Rock, Alpine, and Full Mountain Guides.  Some are true, some are embellished, some are just a product of a previous generation.  There is no question that it is a hard process run by hard people, but the goal of every examiner and instructor is to produce the best of the best guides the industry could ask for.  At last with the final words saying "pass," and a few emails on inquiring to how the process has gone, as well as what potential aspirants should expect, I thought I'd put down the entire process I went through on digital ink.  (Photo Below:  Early morning heli-prep on the 212, before flying into the final exam venue.)

Many people who are thinking about going through the process don't know what to expect.  Expect everything, and expect the unexpected, but go in confident in your abilities.  The high's and low's, uncertainty, self doubt, and personal conflict is exactly what you should expect when trying to become an ACMG Ski Guide.  Throughout the process you are skiing the best terrain and snow possible for the conditions at hand, while being closely scrutinized by mountain guru's who somehow see through mountainsides and around corners.  It is your goal to become the elite all-knowing guide, who even if he or she makes a mistake, it is so quickly corrected it might as well have never even happened.  And after years of training, avalanche courses, work experience, thousands spent traveling to distant remote mountain ranges, and somehow make it through your exam, you earn the right of being named an apprentice on your way to working and completing another exam to obtain the title Full Ski Guide. 
(Photo Above:  Massive amounts of trip planning pre-exam, from custom maps, satellite photos, historical photos, trip reports, etc)
The process started for me years ago heading out on trips into the mountains for days on end, completing large traverses, ski mountaineering descents, ascending peaks, and repeating throughout the rest of North America and internationally.  I started with friends who have gone through the same process, shared tents and snow caves beside people who I trust with my life, and learned how to learn and enhance my mountain craft alongside them.  Skiing and completing a ski resume has taken me all over the world.  From Canada's epic Waddington Range, freezing in the Rockies, sipping wine and skiing through the Alps in France & Italy, among countless other places.  A trip that stands out was in May 2008.  Ty Petrusic, Jeff Van Driel and I made our way across the Garibaldi Park Traverse, doing the entire traverse primarily in white-out, little food, had a wolverine break into our food cache only then come back to smell our heads as we slept that night, and watched size 3 avalanches rip out all around us as we made our way safely through the depths of the far reaching ranges.  As a result and byproduct, I now have partners (now also guides) I can rely on, and true friends who I haven't just had a beer with but worked and sweated beside in order to stay alive.

Throughout the years professional avalanche courses, forecasting, first aid, and tons of different courses and skill sets became more tools in the toolbox of tricks for mountain travel.  How to sleep outside with no sleeping bag in minus 25, how to build anchors with a stuff-sack, how to look at the mountains and immediately tell where the best quality and most stable snow conditions exist, how to dry your sopping wet gloves overnight inside a tent, the ability to gain vertical and cover vast distances in a short amount of time with the least amount of energy spent in a whiteout through complex glaciated terrain that you've never seen, and trillions of other hard skills to learn.  On the journey to learn these skills many horrible cold nights were endured, desperate days spent in the mountains trying to get home quickly long after running out of food and water, and poor snow conditions were skied in search of powder.  
(Photo Above:  ASG Candidate and Examiner skinning up from the Tijuana Glacier, Frost Fiend Area)
The ACMG Ski Guide Program starts with a competitive application, which requires multiple day tours, overnight's, multi-day tours, traverses, technical descents, summer mountaineering objectives, work experience, first aid, avalanche courses, and all must be in varying locations in the high alpine on glaciated terrain in different snowpacks through the Coast, Interior, Rockies, and other areas.  If you can manage muster together a resume built by a full-time ski bum, it still better be impressive, as the bare minimum is hard to get away with and the program typically involves a competitive edge to be accepted into.  Every time I skied deep blower snow in the Selkirks, Purcells, or really anywhere, I always asked myself is this worthy of mention on my resume; every ski mountaineering peak was an easy decision. 

After getting accepted on to the program, candidates complete an alpine skills course in the fall, covering technical rope work, crevasse rescue, and being walked up a glacier in poor vis while roped with a foot of wind transported new snow covering bottomless crevasses to negotiate the hazards in poor conditions.  After that, a mechanized skiing course involving more crevasse rescue, avalanche rescue, victim extrication, avalanche forecasting and stability analysis, downhill ski guiding, dangerous terrain management, treewell management, and a slew of other operational concerns regarding helicopters, snow cats, and lodge work.  Then while your head is trying to recover from it's gluttonous overindulgence of mountain know-how, it gets packed with even more knowledge, as you continue onto the ski touring course.  The ski touring training involves more stability and avalanche forecasting, field weather forecasting, trip and route plans, glaciated travel, uphill track setting, hazard management, client management and care, navigation, cornice hazard, lightweight rescue systems, unplanned overnight stays, and tons of other touring concerns.  All this, and "if" you do well, you will be recommended to the Apprentice Ski Guide Exam.  Oh and one other thing, ski like a rockstar, because if you don't you may not make it through the process and may be held back.
(Photo Above:  ASG Candidate evaluating the lead below Mt Sifton, Rogers Pass)

The exam itself is stressful.  You are being evaluated 24 hours a day for 9 days, on professionalism, hazard management, mountain sense, client care, etc.  Each day has daily feedback that will either put you at ease, or fully throw you, but will help you no matter what.  After flying back to civilization from your 1 of 4 various remote mountain range locations where the exam is being held, you get an interview, and are sent on your way to over-think, stress-out, re-live, and pray that you've passed for the next two weeks.  
(Photo Above:  ASG Candidate hard at work Oyster shucking, Coast Range)
That being said, there is still a large component of fun, despite what you may be thinking so far.  Every course and the exam is all about skiing, and not just skiing, but skiing the best quality and coolest terrain you can find.  On the mechanized course, I was told by an instructor, "I am your client today, I ski well, I am here to ski.  So ski fast and don't stop, I want to go fast."  We skied a 550m tree run through perfectly spaced trees, complete with fallen trees perfectly perpendicular to the slope to launch off, while doing Super G turns and going only as fast as our skis would carry us.  On the exam we skied numerous first descents including the first descent of Dom Perignon to 50deg, and climbed massive alpine ridges through vast sums of terrain, while guiding our cook for the week around.  Let's not forget the mid-week fresh Oyster Heli Drop, straight from Princess Louisa Inlet, into the depths of the Vayu/Frost Fiend area.  
(Photo Above:  FD: Dom Perignon To 50deg (top) average 45deg, 360m, credit:  Deanna Andersen)
Yes a hard process, but an amazing and gratifying experience in itself.  It is the true step away from being the expert recreational backcountry skier to the professional.  Overall, the process is very similar to a University degree (Master's at Full (any) Guide Level, PHD at Mountain Guide).  Schooling is just as intense, may take longer, and really in the long run never ends with continuous updating courses.  However, after passing and gaining work, you rock a gore-tex suit instead of pin-stripe, commute by helicopter instead of bus, water-cooler talk is over the radio, risk mitigation involves explosives and ski cutting rather than a high rise boardroom, and you probably will never own a briefcase.  
The Office - Beautiful Selkirks

Courses completed this season for a full on year of studying:
CAA ITP (Operations) Level 2


  1. Holy Cats! All that just to become an Assistant Ski Guide?? Maybe I'll just get my AST 2 and call it a career!

  2. Hey, great photos and if I have to become an ACMG guide to work at such great places, I would do that with love!

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  3. Congrats Alex! It feels great when you get where you were going for so long.

    I never really considered to become a guide myself but your post makes me curious to just go through the process for the experience...then just keep skiing without clients ;)

  4. Thank you! Being at the beginning of this process I find this kind of information invaluable!